Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

After a relatively long break, Steven Spielberg is back behind the director’s chair, and it was worth the wait.

Reading the description of Bridge of Spies, his first film since the hugely successful biopic Lincoln, it has all the hallmarks of some of his greatest achievements in cinema. It’s based on a true story. It’s a story about individual battles within a larger situation. It stars Tom Hanks. It would have been a surprise if this wasn’t a huge success.

Set between 1957 and 1960 during the height of the Cold War, the film focuses on James B. Donovan (Hanks), a lawyer tasked with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a pilot whose U-2 spy plane has been shot down over the Soviet Union. The negotiation concerns trading Powers for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet KGB spy held captive in the USA who Donovan has previously defended in court. However, tensions rise when Donovan shows his determination to include an additional US citizen – student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) – in a move that seemingly only he is keen to see through.

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The film at times threatens to be sabotaged by a slow pace, though Spielberg keeps it going just enough to avoid it becoming a snooze-fest. The plot is one full of intricacies that reward the attentive viewer, so I’m not sure the modern audiences will get it in the same way they did with Schindler’s List, for example. [1]

This is an ode to traditional storytelling and any movements it makes to remind us of Spielberg’s supreme talents are trumped by its underlining of Tom Hanks as one of the greatest living actors. This is not a story about espionage, politics or the Cold War. It is a film about one man’s unwavering desire to stick to his principles. Hanks portrays Donovan as a totally unassuming man whose aggression is only touched on when he feels the principles for which he stands are threatened. As with most of his best roles, it has a way of pulling you in and asking you what you would do in his shoes.

If it is considered for any awards in the next few months, it will be for Hanks as an actor in a leading role. For all the clever cinematography and attentive set design, they are merely the stage on which Hanks is allowed to fly.

Bridge of Spies is release in cinemas worldwide on 27th November 2015.

[1] I’m well aware that this sounds condescending. It is fueled directly by the woman in front of me who three times during the film decided to have a quick check of her phone next to her pocket. Whilst it was only a minor distraction for me (it wasn’t so bad to warrant me tapping her on the shoulder), she missed two critical plot points and the description of what the characters did next in the final credits. Definitely a justification for the theory that the audience’s participation level is as important as the care put into a film.

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